On August 10, 2010, Dr. Mark Hyman posted an article “Soy: Blessing or Curse?” on the Huff- ington Post blog (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ dr-mark-hyman/soy-blessing-or-curse_b_673912. html). Widely circulated online, it is being widely touted as an example of “sanity” in the “soy debate.” Hyman describes himself as “a practicing physician and an internationally recognized authority in the field of Functional Medicine.” He is founder of The UltraWellness Center and author of the best-selling The UltraMind Solution, among other books.
In Hyman’s words, he wishes there were “more convincing science to report” regarding the soy controversy but he has taken “all the available evidence together” to see “what shakes out.” Hyman has long recommended soy as part of what he calls a “whole foods diet” and is disturbed by fear mongering from anti-soy people. Who these “anti-soy” people are exactly, he doesn’t say.
The most prominent group warning about the dangers of modern soy consumption would be the Weston A. Price Foundation. The late Valerie and Richard James of Soy Online Service in New Zealand were also extremely active in warning about excessive consumption of modern processed soy products and the use of soy infant formula for babies. Our concerns revolve around the myth of soy as a “health food” and how the heavy marketing of soy has led people to over consume soy foods and soy milk and to feed their infants soy formula, putting themselves and their children at risk. To say we are “anti soy,” however, would not be entirely accurate as we support the modest consumption of old-fashioned fermented soy products such as miso, natto, tempeh. They are nutritious and delicious foods in the context of a varied omnivorous diet. I would prefer to say we are pro real foods, whole foods and slow foods, prepared in traditional ways, which modern soy foods most assuredly are not.
NUGGET OF WISDOM
There are indeed some sage and sane observations in Hyman’s article. He advises, for instance, that eating tofu would be wiser than chicken nuggets. Presumably he is referring to fast-food nuggets from factory-farmed chickens (fed soy-based feed) with their meat then “extended” with soy protein isolate and other additives and fried in soy oil. Wise to get the plain tofu, for sure.
Hyman also advises eating old-fashioned fermented whole soybean products. Wise again to avoid industrially processed soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, textured vegetable protein and hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and other industrially processed products, all of which contain MSG, hexane and other toxic and carcinogenic residues. All of us so-called “anti soy” people would agree with that, except the increasing numbers of people who are allergic to soy. They have a reason to be 100 percent “anti soy.” And they are angry “anti soy” people because they find it hard to find anything that’s safe to eat. Their problem is they are trying to find soyfree, packaged, processed and fast foods, which can be well-nigh impossible to find. Soy ingredients right now are in more than 60 percent of processed and packaged foods and nearly 100 percent of fast foods. The most allergic of these people cannot even tolerate meat, poultry, fish, dairy and/or eggs from animals fed soy feed. Sadly, most of the organic and free range products sold come from animals fed in this unnatural way.
For those who are not allergic, the old-fashioned fermented soy products miso, natto and tempeh are fine, but Hyman reveals his ignorance of processing methods when he claims that tofu and soymilk are fermented. Although they are sometimes fermented in Asia — to remove the “poisons” according to one person interviewed in a National Geographic film — none,,if any, of the tofu products widely available in stores are fermented. Even so, a little regular tofu once in awhile — not everyday, and certainly not a whole slab at a time — is not a problem for most individuals. As for soy milk, few if any brands are fermented. Of the brands for sale in stores, most have been loaded up with sugar to make them palatable and with supplements to improve their inadequate nutritional profile. Too bad those supplements include cheap, hard-to-absorb forms of calcium, vegetarian Vitamin D2 (instead of the far superior D3) and beta carotene (in lieu of true Vitamin A).
Hyman is smart, too, to advise against genetically modified soybeans. Their risks to personal and planetary health are high, and described vividly and accurately by Jeffrey Smith in his own Huffington Post article (www.newswithviews.com/Smith/jeffrey8.htm).
EVERYTHING IN “MODERATION”
Sadly, Hyman dismisses the idea that excessive soy consumption is a problem. In his words: “First, you should be aware that the amount of soy used in many of these studies was much higher than what we normally consume — the average dose of soy was equivalent to one pound of tofu or three soy protein shakes a day. That’s a lot of soy! Most people just don’t eat like that. So when you read negative things about soy, remember that many of those claims are based on poorly designed studies that don’t apply to real-world consumption.”
Sounds reasonable, but given the current popularity of plant-based diets and the myth of soy as a “health food,” the truth is many people do eat a pound of tofu in a single setting. Add in a daily soy protein shake made with soy milk, a veggie burger washed down with a glass of soymilk and/or soy energy bar snacks and the quantities add up quickly. Vegans who use soy as both meat and dairy replacements are clearly high risk. But so are omnivores who drink soy milk several times a day or snack on soy protein bars and/or nosh on edamame likes its popcorn. Given the increasing numbers of people who react poorly to ultrapasteurized supermarket and health food store dairy products, a whole lot of people drink soy milk several times a day. That’s excessive consumption, and it matches the levels in numerous studies showing the dangers of soy.
Hyman mocks the anti soy contingent with the words, “You could apply that thinking to other studies, too — like those that show that broccoli contains natural pesticides or that celery is high in toxins. Sure, those foods might cause you some problems — but not in the amounts that most of us eat. The same is true for soy.” Well, yes. There are risks to plant foods! I discuss some of them in my article in the Spring issue “Plants Bite Back!” About time someone noted this in the popular press. Not having the “fight or flight” mechanism, plants fight for their lives with phytochemical warfare. The evolutionary reason is so predators will weaken, possibly die, but most importantly, lose their ability to reproduce.
Until plant-based diets became fashionable, most people didn’t eat massive amounts of vegetables. Even now, few people eat, broccoli three times a day every day. And a good thing too, as there are risks to excess consumption of cruciferous vegetables. The supplement industry, however, is doing its best to “improve” on real life consumption patterns by formulating broccoli pills that will concentrate the compounds found naturally in the real vegetables. I predict that such supplements will lead sooner or later to serious health problems. In the meantime, some real life people eat soy for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. One weight lifter and fitness buff I know took in a gallon of soy milk everyday for a year or so. He is now coping with neurological problems, stuttering and other speech defects.
SOY AND BREAST CANCER
“Don’t worry about soy’s effect on breast cancer,” advises Hyman, implying there is consensus in the scientific community. No such consensus exists. Indeed numerous studies link soy to breast cell proliferation, a well-known marker of breast cancer risk. Accordingly, the Israeli Health Ministry, French Food Agency and German Institute as well as Cornell University’s Center for Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors have all warned women who’ve been diagnosed with — or have a family history of breast cancer — to exercise caution when it comes to soy.
If it were true that “real life” people rarely eat too much soy, we could probably relax. But “moderation” means different things to different people, and Hyman recommends both good soy foods like miso and tempeh that are rarely over consumed and bad ones like soy milk that are very easy to overindulge. Furthermore, Hyman’s assurances that soy isoflavones have beneficial hormonal effects, rarely contribute to endocrine disruption, do not endanger the thyroid and will reduce breast cancer risk will lead some women to purposely increase their consumption of any and all soy products.
Will all those women be at risk? Probably not. A few studies do suggest soy isoflavones could benefit women by reducing their breast cancer risk. But not all women and not at all stages in the life cycle. Accordingly we need reliable lab tests that will show which women might benefit from soy isoflavones, and which would be harmed. Those women who could possibly benefit from soy isoflavones could then take them like pharmaceutical drugs with appropriate dosing, monitoring and follow up. In other words,we need to treat soy isoflavones like a drug. The soy industry’s marketing of soy — of any type eaten in virtually any quantity — as the ticket to an easy menopause and breast cancer prevention is irresponsible.
Hyman’s recommendation that women who want to avoid breast cancer avoid saturated fat is yet another example of how he’s either not done his homework or is pandering to politically correct ideas of nutrition. At least he’s got it right about the dangers of trans fats. They are definitely linked to breast cancer and should be assiduously avoided.
SOY AND THE THYROID
What about the risks of soy to the thyroid? Are the anti soy critics are making a “mountain out of molehill?” Are the effects “not significant or relevant unless you are deficient in iodine (which you can easily get from eating fish, seaweed or sea vegetables, or iodized salt). Hyman reaches that conclusion from just one study, a study that does not exonerate soy by the way. In fact, more than 70 years of studies — including a human study from the respected Ishizuki Clinic in Japan — link modest to moderate soy consumption to thyroid disorders. Iodine deficiency is certainly part of the problem, but iodine repletion neither consistently nor reliably solves the problem. As for Hyman’s idea that iodine deficiency is not a problem, the National Center for Health Statistics reports epidemic iodine deficiency, with intakes plummeting by more than 50 percent between surveys taken between 1970-1974 and 1988-1994, and continuing to decrease in the years since.
SOY INFANT FORMULA
As for babies, Hyman jumps on the “breast is best” bandwagon. He would prefer “no one feeds dairy or soy formula to their babies, but if you have to, try not to worry about it” and “don’t beat yourself up about it.” To reassure readers, Hyman cites a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in August 2001. Let’s take a look a good look at that study.
A team of researchers led by Brian L. Strom, MD, studied the use of soy formula and its long-term impact on reproductive heath, and announced only one adverse finding: longer, more painful menstrual periods among the women who’d been fed soy formula in infancy. The male researchers dismissed this effect — one that has been painful and debilitating for many women — as unimportant and concluded that the overall results were “reassuring.”
In fact, the data in the body of the report was far from reassuring. Mary G. Enig, PhD, President of the Maryland Nutritionists Association; Naomi Baumslag, MD, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at Georgetown University and President of the Women’s International Public Health Network; Lynn R. Goldman, MD, MPH, Environmental Health Sciences, Johns Hopkins University; Retha Newbold, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and other experts who analyzed the findings noted numerous flaws in both the design and reporting of this study, including:
- Failure to include mention of statistically significant, higher incidence of allergies and asthma in the study’s abstract — the only part read by most busy health professionals and media reporters
- Glossing over or omitting from the main body of the report gynecological problems such as higher rates of cervical cancer, polycystic ovarian syndrome, blocked fallopian tubes, pelvic inflammatory disease, hormonal disorders and multiple births
- Manipulation of statistics by not evaluating still births or failure to achieve pregnancy (higher in the soy-fed women) but evaluating miscarriages (slightly higher in the dairy-formula-fed group)
- Excluding thyroid function as a subject for study (although thyroid damage from soy formula has been the principal concern of critics for decades). Nonetheless, thyroid damage, can be surmised by the fact that the soy-fed females grew up to report higher rates of sedentary activity and use of weight-loss medicines
- Conducting the entire study by telephone interviews, asking subjective — in some cases highly personal and emotionally painful — questions and performing no medical examinations, laboratory tests or other objective testing. Breast development, for example, was gauged by asking participants at which age they first bought their bras.
- Providing no information on the ages at which formula feeding ended; the dose length or the quantity of the soy isoflavones (all of which are basic requirements of valid toxicology studies)
- Using the criteria (trade school, college and post college) as a measure of intelligence, thus rating a graduate of a beauty school at the same level as someone who received a doctorate degree
- Following up infants who were given soy formula as infants for just 16 weeks (though serious damage can occur for at least the first nine months in boys and the first six months in girls) and failing to obtain any information about whether the subjects in the study took soy formula after the initial 16-week study period or ate soy foods during childhood
- Using a study group of 282 soy-fed persons that was too small for most of the negative findings to become “statistically significant”
I personally heard scientists at the Fifth and Sixth Symposia on the Role of Soy in Preventing and Treating Chronic Disease held in San Diego and Chicago stand up and speak out about the dismal quality of this “reassuring” study. So who funded it? The National Institutes of Health with the International Formula Council (a trade group that represents formula manufacturers). Even more reassuringly, it was carried out under the auspices of the Fomon Infant Nutrition Unit at the University of Iowa, a group which receives support from the major formula manufacturers, including Abbott, Nestle and Mead Johnson.
Hyman also feels comfortable touting the safety of soy infant formula because of a report issued in December 2009 by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR). Its 14-member committee concluded that the health risks of soy infant formula are “minimal” and insufficient human or animal data exist to prove the likelihood of harm to the baby’s developmental or reproductive health.
Before reaching this conclusion, the committee looked at 700 studies. Sounds like a lot, but the committee failed to examine at least as many others, many of which linked soy formula to severe thyroid and gastrointestinal effects especially when fed during the first few months after birth, a key developmental phase for infants. The panel also arbitrarily decided that reproductive damage had to occur during infancy although it is rare for symptoms to show up before puberty. During public proceedings, the 14 members — many of whose work and careers depend on funding from industry or government sources — were pressured by soy industry representatives who made it clear that a vote indicating “some concern” would damage soy’s “healthy” image and jeopardize industry profits.
THOSE LONG LIVED OKINAWANS
So which people are thriving on lots of soy? According to Hyman, it’s the Okinawans, the world’s longest-lived people, who “for more than five millennia have eaten whole, organic and fermented soy foods like miso, tempeh, tofu, soy milk, and edamame (young soybeans in the pod).” Interesting indeed that the Okinawans have been eating these foods for “five millenia,” when miso and tofu only entered the food supply about three thousand years ago. Tempeh came in to the food supply in Indonesia sometime between 1000 and 1595 AD. As for soy milk, the first historical reference is 1866, and it was first popularized in Asia in the 20th century by Seventh Day Adventist missionaries from America.
Where might Hyman’s careful research on the “healthy Okinawans come from?” Probably from the Bradley and D. Craig Wilcox and their bestselling popular books The Okinawa Program and The Okinawa Diet Plan. That seems to be where vegetarian John Robbins obtained the information he includes in his article about the same topic. Among other major blunders, the Willcox brothers claim that Okinawans who have reached the 100 year mark in good health did so because of ample quantitities of soy foods and canola oil in their diets. Yes, canola oil — the Canadian oil (Can-ola) that didn’t even exist on the planet until a few decades ago! The Willcoxes also show confusion from page to page about just how much soy is eaten. In fact, the amounts vary widely from place to place in Asia, but nowhere is the average very high and everywhere it’s treated as a condiment in the diet and not as a staple food. While it’s certainly true that Okinawans regularly eat some soy, the evidence indicates they also enjoy a lot of pork in their diet. And the primarily monounsaturated fat those centenarians ate over the course of their long lives was not canola oil but good old-fashioned lard. Yes, lard is a primarily monounsaturated fat.
REVIEWING THE RESEARCH
Hyman claims he has “reviewed reams of research” yet lists only three references at the conclusion of his article, the first of which is an review article by soy industry lobbyist Mark Messina, PhD. Hyman winds up by saying he’s “eager to see the studies on soy and health.” The bottom line is thousands of studies have been carried out over the past eighty years, many of which suggest risks and none prove safety.
Clearly it would be wise to advance the precautionary principle of “better safe than sorry.” That has led the Israeli Health Ministry, French Food Agency, and German Institute of Risk Assessment to issue warnings to parents and pediatricians. Warnings have also come from respected independent scientists, including Dan Sheehan, the retired senior toxicologist at FDA’s Laboratory of Toxicological Research in Jefferson, Arkansas, Retha Newbold of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Triangle Park, NC, Irvin E. Liener, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and the world’s leading expert on on antinutrients such as protease inhibitors, phytates, lectins, saponins, etc., Lon R. White MD, a neuro-epidemiologist with the Pacific Health Institute in Honolulu; and Mary G. Enig, PhD, the courageous scientist who first exposed the dangers of trans fats in the late 1970s. Alternative doctors with impressive records of reversing cancer such as the late Max Gerson MD, Nicholas Gonzalez MD and others have also put soy on their “do not eat” lists. Neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock MD, has strongly warned against soy’s adverse effects on the brain and nervous system. None of these groups or individuals have been militantly “anti soy.” All have looked long and hard at the research, and have soberly and responsibly concluded that caution is warranted and soy can put infants, children and adults at risk.
Time for Dr. Hyman to do some real homework and not just express his “eagerness” to know more.